A plan, likely to gain state approval in coming weeks, will lease ETV's extra spectrum capacity so a wireless broadband network can be built in rural and urban South Carolina.
Some lawmakers say the agreement will bring much-needed revenue to state coffers and, for a fee, offer a new level of technology to all parts of the state.
But critics contend the plan sells the state's residents short in the long run and will hurt economic-development efforts.
Thursday, a subcommittee of lawmakers approved a nearly $143 million, 30-year lease agreement with two private companies that will use ETV's excess capacity to bring the next generation of broadband technology called WiMax to the state.
Under federal rules, ETV has converted to a digital format from its analog one, freeing up 95 percent of its capacity.
ETV will hang onto 5 percent of its capacity to continue with its programming and other needs.
The rest will be leased to two companies:
- 70 percent of the extra capacity will be leased to Washington state-based Clearwire to create a WiMax network in the urban parts of the state. Individuals, businesses and others would pay WiMax a fee to access the network via computers.
An alternative to cable or DSL, WiMax is a telecommunications technology that can deliver wireless broadband across long distances. WiMax can transfer much more data than other technologies, allowing for new uses including interactive tools.
- The remaining 30 percent will be go to Virginia-based Digital Bridge Communications, a provider of wireless broadband to small and medium-sized communities. Digital Bridge would serve the state's rural areas with a fee-based WiMax network.
The controversy is about how much capacity the state should retain.
Under the lease agreement, the state could recapture up to 25 percent of the leased capacity for public safety, educational or governmental purposes by renegotiating the leases in the future.
But Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Organgeburg, said the state needs to hang onto 25 percent of the extra capacity up front and use it to aid South Carolinians.
"Who knows what kind of technology we'll have in 10 years that could help our state?" Cobb-Hunter said. "We have such a digital divide in this state. We'll never close it if we lease out nearly all of our capacity for the next 30 years."
Cobb-Hunter said she could foresee the capacity being used to provide Internet access and other yet-to-be-determined technology to the state's nonprofits, senior centers and other groups.
But Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, said hanging onto 25 percent of the capacity would reduce the lease's value by $28.4 million.
"I'm not willing to take a ($28.4 million) gamble on a hunch that, in the future, there'll be some use for the additional capacity," he said.
McConnell also noted ETV has said it does not need more than 5 percent of its original capacity.
Another critic of the proposed lease, Brett Bursey, director of the S.C. Progressive Network, said the capacity could be used now to utilize new technologies and reduce telecommunication rates for state agencies and schools.
That could include putting laptop computers and magnetic card readers in Highway Patrol cars, allowing instant reporting and recording based on strips on driver's licenses and making residents healthier by providing health monitoring via the Internet in clinics.
"Rather than have the nation's only statewide public broadband system, we are on the verge of privatizing SCETV's educational broadband system that could save us billions of tax dollars and improve the quality of life South Carolina," Bursey said.
Wednesday, the Joint Bond Review Committee will consider the lease agreement. Then, it moves to the state Budget and Control Board, whose members have the final say.
Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.